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Wedenesday – My fictitious daughters

January 18, 2006

Up at 6am (another candlelit wash and mozzie repellent smear) to depart at 6:30 for the first official WaterAid field visit. The early departure is driven by lighting. Suzanne needs the light from 7-9am. After 10am it is too harsh and there is no point in taking any more photos until 3pm. The plan is to get the photos out of the way first, then Duncan and I can do the interviews with the selected women.

We arrive in the Niger border village of Alhazai and the plan immediately goes pear shaped. Because, of course, we cannot do anything until the community is gathered and we are officially welcomed by the chief. Suzanne, with the best light disappearing every five minutes, fidgets as the welcoming ceremony is conducted.

Eventually we are led to the hand pump, which was installed 22 years ago. Like the well, dug 40 years ago, this is not a WaterAid project. Although the community had long since made the connection between safe water and health, people were still getting ill frequently. WaterAid, working with the local government authority, has initiated a programme of sanitation and hygiene education. So far, only two latrines have been built. Most of the 2300 people who live in Alhazai are still relieving themselves in the bush. Still, it is important to get photos of women at the pump and Suzanne sets about trying to do this.

Jannatu Buniya at the hand pump, Alhazai © Suzanne Porter

It is immediately obvious that crowd control is a problem. This is, as Mathew, our driver explains, almost certainly the most exciting thing that has happened in the community for years and everyone wants to see what’s going on. After frequent stops to move the crowds, she manages to get the job done. (Although access to the well is limited to the village first in the morning, later on people from other communities arrive with pack animals to fetch water. Donkeys predominate, but there are also camels! Suzanne assures me these are mangy specimens that would never pass muster in Mali, where camels are revered.)

We then go to the compound of Jannatu Buniya, a 30-year-old mother of four, photographed at the pump and well, to take some at home pictures of her. I stay behind with the female interpreter provided by our local government partner to interview Jannatu and her 10-year-old daughter Laruba. The plan is that I will later also interview Karimato Abadu, wife of the village hygiene promoter. This plan also goes pear shaped when Karimato and a number of other women crowd with us under the shelter in front of Jannatu’s home. The ‘interpreter’ doesn’t actually speak English all that well and it’s a bit of a struggle to keep straight which woman answers which question, but I persevere, feeling I’m not doing a very good job, clinging to the pre-trip briefing during which I was told it would take a couple of interviews before I get into the swing of it. Chalk these up to experience. Still, I manage to elicit the important information that the children in the village are much more active, happier and, most importantly, healthier since they began practising the lessons preached in hygiene education. The women are looking forward to getting their own latrines, because at the moment they are going to the bush. During the day this involves travelling some distance for privacy. At night they are in danger of being confronted by a snake, a scorpion or a robber. (A reminder already that the Gumel Emirate Foundation Hotel is luxury by comparison.)

Slab making © Suzanne Porter

Interviews conducted as best they are likely to be, I go off in search of the rest of my party. Duncan is interviewing someone from the local government while Suzanne takes photos of the slab makers at work.

This could take a while and I would only be in the way, so I sit on a log by a wall. In a remarkably short period of time, I am joined by several women, including my interpreter and Mina, another young woman from the local government group whose English is almost perfect. Mina says, on behalf of the women, that we have asked them many questions that morning and she wonders if they could now ask me some questions. Of course, I say. Where do I live? They want to know. London, England, I say. Mina tells me they pronounce it Engalund. I nod, smile and repeat this: Engalund. Everyone laughs. One woman asks if blonde is my natural hair colour. I tell her it is (leaving out the fact that I have lately been assisting the process somewhat). They have been told that European women often change their hair colour. Do I do this? No, I say. I have always been blonde. Another woman asks shyly if she can touch my hair. Of course, I say, pulling off my sun hat and leaning towards her. She has a feel, as do a few others.

Then it’s time to get down to business. How many children do I have? I’ve already been told that in Nigeria for a woman to be unmarried and childless is an unimaginably tragic state of affairs, so I lie to avoid unnecessary complication and commiseration, say I have two children. Boys? Girls? Two girls, I say. Aside from the fact that I simply cannot imagine being the mother of a son, I feel duty bound to have successful daughters in the Muslim north. What do my daughters do, they ask. One is at university, I say, knowing that the girls in this village do not go to school, the other graduated last year and is now working as a journalist. What are their names? Kate and Emma, I say, picking two favourite names so I will remember in the unlikely event that the subject comes up again. What about your husband, they ask? Oh, dear. This is spiralling out of control. I can happily envisage Kate and Emma, these two brilliant, accomplished daughters of mine striving to make their way in the world, but somehow I cannot picture their father, my equally non-existent husband. He was a very bad man, I say. He ran away after the children were born. They nod sympathetically, then ask where he went. Where? Crikey, how should I know where this fictitious bastard went? America, I say. It’s a long way from Engalund, somewhere they’d know about and the first answer that pops into my head. Did he have another family there, they ask. Probably, I say, I haven’t heard from him in years. Did I not remarry, they ask. No, I say. There were opportunities, but I decided I would rather maintain my independence. Once was enough. They are stunned by this, explain to me that in their culture, if a woman is divorced or widowed and still of child bearing years she is expected to remarry. I tell Mina that, after due consideration, I have decided that men are far more trouble than they are worth. She does not translate this to the others, but tells me she suspects I am right. However, in her culture, life without a husband is not an option. We smile conspiratorially at one another. At that point Duncan comes over to tell me he and Suzanne are finished and it is time to go, thus saving me from getting any further tangled in this web I’ve been weaving.

Back to the only eatery in Gumel to choose from boiled rice, chicken, fried plantain and salad for lunch. Between the overnight flight and the early morning departures, I’m getting quite backed up. My body is craving some roughage, so I throw caution to the wind, order chicken, rice and salad (figure I’ll save the four option combination for dinner). The ‘salad’ consists of sliced hard boiled egg, some cold baked beans, shredded cabbage and a couple of slices of tomato tossed in some substance that tastes suspiciously like Miracle Whip. Interesting.

Lunch consumed, we’re back on the road. Well, it’s a road part of the way, then we turn off and drive (I check with Mathew) ten kilometres along a bumpy, dusty dirt track, arriving eventually at Ladin Kani, where WaterAid is again working with the local government on sanitation and hygiene education.

Another welcoming ceremony, another slab building demonstration and a truly astonishing sight: in the middle of nowhere, a boy wearing a black T-shirt, emblazoned with the image of Bart Simpson mooning. Make sure I get a picture of that.

I interview Bilki Ibrahim, the female hygiene promoter. It is her job to get the message across to the women in the village that they and their children must wash their hands with soap and water after defecating and before and after preparing food. She also teaches them how to bathe their children and themselves, along with the importance of keeping their environment clean and their food and water containers covered. I ask how she does this, whether there are meetings or she goes from home to home. Mostly, she tells me through the interpreter, she goes from home to home, as women are not allowed to have meetings separate from the men, but she also takes advantage of weddings and naming ceremonies, when the whole village is gathered, to talk to women in groups. Although people never used to think about using the bush as a toilet or understood the importance of washing with soap and water, she knows the hygiene education must be true, because her children are much healthier. She and her husband always used to be in debt from borrowing money to pay for medicine when the children had diarrhoea. If they were lucky they’d have one debt of 600 naira paid off before incurring the next. Sounds a lot and then you work out that 600 naira is approximately £2.50. Recurring, overwhelming debts of £2.50. Three and a half times the amount the majority of Nigerians live on per day. Half a week’s salary in our terms. When women complain to her about the cost (20-40 naira) of buying soap, she reminds them of the cost of medicine.

Interviewing Biliki Ibrahim © Suzanne Porter

I ask Bilki what she most enjoys about her role. She tells me she feels good that she is helping to make people healthier. Then she smiles and admits that she has used some of the 1500 naira annual fee she receives – the first money she’s ever had of her own – to buy some new clothes, including the head scarf she is wearing. I smile and nod my understanding of this thrill. For me it would have been shoes.

Suzanne, meanwhile, is a big hit with the village chief. Unable to squat any longer taking pictures, she has first borrowed, then purchased from him for 500 naira a small carved stool. As we leave he is trying to sell her a young bull. Or perhaps he is trying to swap the bull for her. It is not entirely clear.

At the hotel, the live wires of the generator are once again installed in the exterior plug of Suzanne’s room. At the eatery, I have steamed rice, chicken, fried plantain and salad for dinner. Another cold, candlelit wash and an attempt, after dousing myself in repellent, to read for a while by the dim light of the kerosene lamp, supplemented by a long, thin candle. I give up when the candle folds in half and, before I notice this, sets the string on my torch on fire. String fire put out, I also put out the lantern and use the torch to crawl under the net with my alarm clock, which I set for 5:30. Another early departure tomorrow. I turn off the torch, settle down to sleep. Ten minutes later the radio starts blaring next door. God knows when later I get to sleep.

Today I have learned how to say hello (sanu), thank you (na go de) and thank you very much (na go de so sai) in Hausa. Along with Suzanne I have also learned how to say smile (mir mushi).

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From → Nigeria

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